Beware Hawkish Catastrophism
The U.S. can afford to feel more secure and less afraid.
Robert Manning counsels against hawkish catastrophism:
Why is the sky always falling in debates about U.S. intervention? Disaster-mongering has tended to pervade U.S. efforts to garner public support for policies since the creation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947, sometimes justifiably. Catastrophism is so often the rationale for government foreign-policy actions that, twinned with American exceptionalism to make the world “be like us,” this mindset seems to have become embedded in U.S. pathology from the Truman era to the present.
Warning that “inaction” will lead to disaster is the default rhetorical move among hawks, and hawks issue these warnings so often because it is usually the only way for them to sell aggressive policies that make no sense for U.S. interests. Because the U.S. often has little or nothing at stake in a given country, hawks that want the U.S. to intervene in that country are compelled to exaggerate the importance of the place and its connection to U.S. interests elsewhere. This is why China hawks exaggerate Taiwan’s importance to the U.S. position in East Asia, and it is why hawkish Atlanticists exaggerate the importance of Ukraine to NATO’s security, and it is why Cold War hawks exaggerated the importance of South Vietnam to the policy of containment itself. It was also why the Bush administration had to exaggerate the supposed threat from Iraq. It was mostly thanks to the most deranged alarmism that the idea of launching an illegal, aggressive war against Iraq found broad support.
In every case, hawks warn that the “costs of inaction” will be too high, and they rig the scale by claiming that “inaction” will lead to unimaginable catastrophe. The scenarios they sketch out don’t hold up well under close scrutiny, and that is why they have to stoke fear to keep people from thinking too carefully about their claims. “But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” Condi Rice said when pressed to offer evidence to back up the administration’s untrue claims about Iraqi weapons programs. The key for advocates of such policies is to cast their recklessness as erring on the side of caution instead of the aggression that it is. At the same time, they minimize the risks of intervention and involvement and then they are the ones that dismiss dangers of escalation as unfounded fearmongering. They can’t or won’t admit that their policies might be courting disaster, and they take it as a given that “inaction” is what invites it.
The result is that the U.S. ends up overcommitting to places where it has negligible interests on the false assumption that it is thereby guarding core interests. Eventually reality sets in and the U.S. realizes that its involvement was unnecessary and unwise, but not before the U.S. has frittered away considerable resources and sometimes wasted a lot of lives. Then a few years later hawks identify another country where the fate of the world will supposedly be decided, and the cycle repeats.
Terrifying the public into supporting a policy “for their own good” is usually a sign that the policy is not in the best interests of the public and the country. The hawkish reliance on stoking fear over the decades may “work” in the short term by causing the public to really behind the latest bad policy, but it does so only by short-circuiting the process and ensuring that policymakers fail to consider the costs and pitfalls of the policy in question. Unless hawks “scare the hell” out of people by conjuring up looming disasters, their policy recommendations will normally appear too extreme and dangerous to garner as much support as the hawks want.
Every time there is a debate over intervention or withdrawal, hawks predict that U.S. credibility and its alliances will fall apart if the U.S. does not heed their warning, and every time the hawks are proven wrong. Withdrawing from Afghanistan was supposed to make allies doubt U.S. commitments to them, and nothing of the sort happened. “Failing” to bomb Syria in 2013 was supposed to have a host of bad consequences for U.S. credibility worldwide, but it ended up having no discernible effect at all. The hawks are fortunate that their many predictions are quickly forgotten by most people, and so they just wait for the next crisis or conflict to do it all over again. They have an advantage that the public is primed to respond to their fearmongering about foreign crises and conflicts.
Andrew Preston discussed the role of fear in shaping U.S. foreign policy thinking since WWII in an article in the new volume, Ideology in U.S. Foreign Relations, and there are some sections in the article that are relevant here. Preston writes:
With its tendencies toward zero-sum thinking, the Cold War deeply embedded the circular logic of security-through-supremacy in the American worldview. But instead of real security, or even a sense of security, the “national security revolution” triggered an endless series of nightmares about potential enemies who may have been appeared to be small and distant but could theoretically inflict grievous harm on the United States.
A country with expansive overseas commitments and an ambitious foreign policy is prone to see threats everywhere, and it will tend to see a setback anywhere as a danger to the entire structure. Its government is susceptible to overexpansion because it believes in what Jack Snyder called the myths of empire. Snyder writes:
Just as proponents of expansion have promised that cumulative gains will lead to imperial security, so too they have warned that losses in the empire’s periphery can easily bring a collapse of power at the imperial core, through any of several mechanisms: a cumulative erosion of economic and military resources; the increasing difficulty of imperial defense owing to the loss of strategic forward positions; or the progressive abandonment of the state by its allies, who might infer that it would not live up to its commitments.
These myths are ingrained in much of our foreign policy thinking, and it is difficult to get rid of them. The fear that peripheral losses will have larger effects on core interests is evidently a hard one for many people to shake, but the record clearly shows that the U.S. should be much less concerned about and less entangled in countries where it has limited interests. The U.S. is extraordinarily secure from physical attack, and it faces fewer foreign threats than is commonly supposed. The U.S. can afford to feel more secure and less afraid.
Preston, “The Fearful Giant: National Insecurity and U.S. Foreign Policy,” Ideology in U.S. Foreign Relations: New Histories: p. 177.
Snyder, The Myths of Empire: p.3.
I had forgotten about the smoking gun/mushroom cloud line. With what we know now about the intelligence they had at the time, her willingness to say that seems almost monstrous, or better/worse, unhinged.